I grew up spending magical summers sweating away on archaeological digs, getting absolutely filthy shoveling dirt and cleaning potsherds and bones back in the lab, so few things get me as excited as a trip to one of the most incredible and under-appreciated archaeological sites in the United States. Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in Three Rivers, New Mexico is a short drive north of the more famous White Sands National Monument and really deserves to be a national monument in its own right. Having been to the more trafficked Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, I’d have to say that Three Rivers is infinitely more exciting. It’s more accesible and impressive and because it’s on BLM land, you are free to wander and explore.
I drove north on Highway 54, passing through Tularosa and making a right at the Three Rivers Trading Post onto Three Rivers Road. Five miles of paved road led to a short gravel road on the left heading into the site. The day use and camping fee is $2, a sum so ridiculously low that I can’t imagine how anyone could complain about it, but apparently some people do. If you happen to have splurged on the $80 interagency America the Beautiful pass, you don’t even have to pay the $2. I’d been to Three Rivers once before when I was about 12, but seeing it again now was even more special. The 1/2 mile trail through the petroglyphs is very easy; it climbs in elevation a little bit along a ridge, but one would have to be seriously out of shape to have trouble getting to the top.
The petroglyphs are easy to see and several of them are even marked. They were made by the Jornada Mogollon people from about 900-1400AD, and while it might seem obvious that they were painted onto the rocks, petroglyphs were actually created by scraping away the top layer of dark patina from the rocks using hard stone tools and lots of time. Of course, it wouldn’t be a priceless archaeological site if hundreds of what can only be phrased in the kindest language possible as utter assholes took it upon themselves to try carving some petroglyphs of their own, often overtop the original ancient ones. Needless to say, many of the petroglyphs closest to the trail have some very heavy wear on them where clueless tourists have trampled over them and taken knives and keys and rocks to them to carve their way into history. Fortunately the Mogollon people managed to carve around 21,000 petroglyphs at the site, and even the most evilly ignorant would have a hard time defacing all of them.
There is a pavilion at the end of the trail where most hikers rest for a while and take in the surrounding view before heading back down the ridge. It’s not a widely advertised fact, but the petroglyphs don’t simply stop where the trail does and because it’s BLM land, you aren’t prohibited from exploring (just don’t trample everything in sight & watch out for rattlesnakes). I headed farther along the ridge, out of sight of the pavilion, and the petroglyphs got bigger and bigger and better defined against the rock. Some of the petroglyphs are easy to figure out what the artist was going for like animals and faces. Others are otherworldly symbols and geometric designs. The sky was an incredible shade of sapphire blue and the petroglyphs photographed perfectly against it, lit by the sun which was inching its way into the west. I made my way to the smaller rock outcropping to the west and found several petroglyphs there, but they seemed to be much older perhaps, and many were faded. Still, they were all worth seeing and it was easy to imagine how the artists would have been inspired by their surroundings. It’s a desert, yes – but still very much alive and bursting with color. The entire area is wildly photogenic and I really needed a wide angle lens to capture the petroglyphs up close and a telephoto zoom to photograph the distant mountains. For a place like this, the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L and the Canon 70-300 f4-5.6 L are just about ideal.
After several hours exploring, I made my way back down to the parking area and office. There aren’t many places in the desert to charge up phones and laptops so I asked Barb & Ted in the office if I could make use of one of their electrical outlets. These volunteers have got to be just about the nicest people you could ever meet and I spent a long time talking to them on our first day at Three Rivers. I decided to spend the night there and I picked out one of the sandboxes near the pump house. The sandboxes are raised beds filled with gravel that help to keep at least some of the crawlies out of tent at night. Storm clouds threatened in the distance and a strong wind picked up in the evening, so I weighted down the tent stakes with several large rocks.
The wind brought cool air down from the higher altitudes of the Sierra Blanca mountains in Lincoln National Forest immediately to the east. We were alone in the campground, except for one RV, but its occupants were out elk hunting and didn’t return until after ten at night. Before we turned in (around 8pm, because when it’s pitch black outside there really isn’t much else to do) I decided to shine the flashlight under the picnic table we’d been sitting at. Just under the bench seats were about half a dozen black widow spiders, contentedly waiting for a flying snack. Even when you know that there are all kinds of venomous animals in close proximity at nearly all times in the desert, it’s really a different matter to realize and actually see that you’ve had your leg about half an inch from some of them for the last few hours. A trip to the bathroom found a scorpion scaling the wall and a bat dangling above the door, which was really neat to see up close. Finally bundled in the sleeping bags with wind howling outside and pressing the tent down toward our faces, the yelping songs of coyotes carried through the darkness. To me, this is camping as it was meant to be.
The morning dawned with the air still and the temperature quickly rose toward the triple digits. We took shelter from the sun under one of the covered pavilions near our campsite and I whipped up a batch of just-add-water pancakes, made even better by butter flavored cooking spray. Five years taken off my life, I headed back up the ridge for some more face time with the petroglyphs. I explored beyond the pavilion again, this time going farther to the north and exploring the east side of the ridge where Ted had told me I could find some really nice petroglyphs. There were some impressive ones, but I found my favorites along the northwestern side of the ridge, which I followed to its conclusion.
Several hundred meters to the east of the main ridge is a rocky hill perhaps 50 meters high with large rocks scattered at the top. I couldn’t tell from such a distance whether there were petroglyphs or not, but I couldn’t imagine why the Jornada Mogollons would have passed up carving petroglyphs on such a nice spot that was much higher than any of the other hills in the area. The climb to the top was steep, but I was rewarded with more petroglyphs and an amazing view. As I made my way around the peak, picking my way across loose rock, I suddenly heard what sounded like a very large animal startle just around the corner and out of sight. My heart was racing as I expected to come face to face with a mountain lion, as tumbling rocks cascaded down the hill. As I stepped forward, I saw two large deer galloping down the slope, apparently as freaked out by me as I was by them. They undoubtedly thought I was a mountain lion too.
I spent some more time that afternoon in the office with Barb and Ted, swapping stories about our travels across the country. They invited me to go to dinner with them and after weeks of food from cans, bags, and boxes, the thought of real food was overwhelming and the prospect of human companionship really sealed the deal. Ted’s brother had just arrived to stay with them and so the four of us piled into their little red car and drove 22 miles south to Tularosa to eat at Casa de Suenos. After goop from a can, anything would seem appetizing, but Casa de Suenos would have been great even if I hadn’t been on a cross-country camping trip. I’ve never had deep-fried avocados before and that was quite the treat. Ted made a meal of them, while I went for a burrito. The food was great and the company was even better – along with experiencing the wild places in America, meeting new people has got to be my favorite thing about traveling. I’d love to one day do what Barb and Ted have been doing for years now, traveling the country and volunteering in remote and out of the way places.
Returning to the campground, the sun was sinking slowly into the west and rain was falling in the distance. The air was cool as I hurried up the trail and picked a good vantage point atop a rock to settle in and photograph the sunset. The dark falling rain was silhouetted against the vibrant colors of the sky and the sunset was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen. An otherworldly glow grew brighter and brighter as the sun sank behind Salinas Peak, an 8,965 ft mountain in the San Andres Range.